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- Ken Clark
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- 04 August 2005
We all have experience of the most memorable day in our lives — all relating to different events, with brief or lifetime affects. But for most of us aged 70 or thereabouts, there is one most memorable day that we share with thousands of others: the 1st of September 1939, when the great evacuation of school children from our cities began because of the imminence of the war with Germany.
Documentaries on this subject tend to depict very young children, some tearful, climbing onto trains. But of course just as many schoolboys and girls the 12-18 age group were evacuated, and I want to write here of the experience of one boy of that age.
In fact I was 12 ½ and beginning my second year at my south London grammar school. The first intimation of the threat of war was the installation in our small back garden of an Anderson shelter in the spring of 1939 (a large one because there were six in our family).
We attended school every day at the end of august with a packed case and gas masks slung over our shoulders. There was a tense atmosphere, a mixture of anxiety and excitement, so that it was a relief when the order came to move.
We marched downhill to Brockley station, not knowing where in the whole of England we might be going, nor how long we would be away — actually most of us would never return to our London school.
We went in a special train to Caterham in Surrey and from there by coaches to Oxted, a small town built round the railway station below the North Downs.
We were deposited at Oxted’s County School and then marched down the high street where I and another boy, unknown to me were delivered to a tailor’s little shop — it was not until later I realised how chance influences one’s happiness. The white haired tailor and his wife gave us a warm welcome and settled us in a small back bedroom (reached through their bedroom) with a view of Oxted’s gasworks.
It was a strange atmosphere for two days — we might go home again if there was no war. But war was declared on the 3rd of September and we had to get used to a strange life. To begin with we shared the Oxted School, doing only part time lessons. We sent for our bicycles and this is when our exploration of Surrey began. We cycled to Redhill to swim, to Westham, to Edebbridge and I eventually cycled alone to Tunbridge wells, without a map and with no sign posts (they had been removed), to visit my sister.
The tailor was straight from dickens. He sat cross-legged (his legs were unusually short) on a bench in his workroom in the back garden — he was always ready to talk while sewing and I liked him straight away.
But the shortcomings of the house were soon apparent. There was no bathroom and only an outside loo and the food was not very good (except for fruit puddings). After some months we were found another billet. There was no bad feeling, but the tailor, like other poorer folk who were moved to take us in by the threat of war found the billeting allowance of 50p for one boy and less than 100p for two per week was not enough.
My next home could not have been more different. It was with a well off family in a large house in the shade of Limpsfield’s little church, with only fields and woods between it and the North Downs. I shared an attic bedroom with another boy and we had the use of the ‘day nursery’ to do our homework in the evenings. There was one servant and a nanny to look after two small daughters. It was a happy family but an odd existence, because at the weekends we had meals with the family waited on by the maid and in the week our ‘high teas’.
Our host and hostess both played the church organ and one of my tense but happy memories is my duty to ‘turn over’ the music for special recitals. I kept in touch with the lady of the house until last year, when she died at over 90.
Although we enjoyed the countryside, we did witness the white faced Dunkirk soldiers being driven by and the Battle of Britain took place over our heads. I must say we enjoyed the aerial dogfights, with a boyish disregard of any deaths involved.
Our schooling improved when we acquired a huge mansion which became our school, and three other houses which became hostels for about half of the boys. With a housemaster, blacked out evenings in the winters and no televisions or radios, homework had no competition. Our examination results were better than in peace time.
In 1939 I looked up at the North Downs and wondered how far from home we were. By 1941 some of us would start off at 6 o’clock on Sunday mornings and cycle over the Downs and on to reach London in time for breakfast!
But peace came at last and many of us (including myself) were called up for National Service for three years. In 1989 we had a special meeting of the Old Boys’ Association to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 1939. Over 80 attended, grey haired grandfathers by then, and it was heartening to see how many of the old Oxted men stood together. Warrime evacuation had not been without its troubles, but the friendships made then have endured.
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